How to improve social media messaging during emergencies

Changing workflow processes and devoting staff to social media are critical
By: | March 5, 2020
Colleges can use social media to alert students and the community of snow days. gettyimages.com: JerryPDX

Emergency notification systems that allow campus officials to post and share alerts on social media channels—so people can like, quote and leave comments—expands a college’s audience during live incidents.

While beneficial, adding social media strategies to emergency notification processes can be challenging. Following are some successful procedures and policies colleges are using to get the job done.

Changing workflow processes

A few years ago, The University of North Carolina at Charlotte switched to an emergency notification system—rebranded as NinerAlerts—with the social media component activated. Officials then improved administrative procedures. “We started from the ground up by creating new social media accounts and worked with our communications department to understand how to use them,” says Christy Jackson, director of communications for business affairs. “We agreed that these accounts would not send out nonsensical or fluff messaging, so if people received a message from us, they knew it was important.”

Communications officials now use the main university pages to share messages from NinerAlerts accounts, which continue to gain more followers, especially after emergencies.


Related: How colleges use social media alerts during emergencies


At Ohio University, policies concerning scheduled posts have evolved. “If I’m dealing with an emergency, I don’t want a scheduled message from athletics to go out at the same time as my emergency message,” says Carly Leatherwood, senior director of communications services. “We need to pause everything that distracts from emergency communication efforts.”

Devoting staff to social media

Unlike text and email alerts, many people interact with social media posts, so having a full-time staff member to provide immediate responses is important. “When you are crafting messaging and worried about updating other outlets such as an alert page, it helps having somebody else who can not only focus on what people are asking and giving one-off answers that need to be addressed but can get feedback on your messaging so you can improve immediately,” says Leatherwood.

Monitoring social media can also stop the spread of false information. “If rumors are spreading, we want to put an end to those as quickly as possible to make sure people have access to accurate information,” says Ryan Yarosh, senior director of media and public relations at Binghamton University in New York.


Related: Mass notification system providers on social media practices


Officials set up social media alerts using a system similar to Hootsuite that alerts administrators when people use certain keywords on social media. “We are often able to gauge how widespread the issue or rumor is based on the number of tags and messages we receive,” Yarosh says. “We then respond to clarify the issue or offer the latest developments.”

Having multiple offices involved in pushing alerts helped UNC Charlotte during a potential active shooter incident on April 30. Police dispatch pushed the first alert. Dispatch and the emergency management department, which can also send alerts, soon became so overwhelmed with other responsibilities that the duty of posting updates fell on the office of communications for business affairs.

“It was great to have that built-in redundancy to jump in and seamlessly continue to push alerts,” says Jackson, director of that office. “I think there may be some institutions that are afraid of social media for a crisis. But your audience is going to be using it regardless, so you need to be there. In the absence of information, people make up their own.”